Project 1040: On Generosity, Clean Water, and Imagination

$Here are the common things I remember hearing on the topic of money and resources growing up:

你真的需要吗?(“Do you really need that?”)

不要浪费. (“Don’t waste it.”)

太贵了. (“That’s too expensive.”)

Now, I never sat down with my non-Christian Chinese immigrant parents to discuss their specific worldview on financial resources, simplicity, and generosity – but like everything else – as a kid, you figure out pretty quick what is important and what is NOT.  Thus, conspicuous excess, luxurious spending, and wastefulness were shameful practices.  Also, acts of charity and generosity to those outside our immediate family was also treated with suspicion.

This is the context for my own journey in the Christian faith to reconcile the Bible’s teaching on money and my own upbringing of frugality and self-protection.  I had inherited the lessons of prior generations – borne from a lifetime of being subject to violence, war, financial instability, and limited resources.

In terms of the values expressed on this blog — I found that my family had helped me develop the “muscle” of simplicity, but left the corresponding capacity to be generous in an atrophied state.  It is only in recent years, that I have begun to work on this part of my life.  And although I make no pretense to be a finished product, I feel I am closer today than when I started.

The current example: for Lent this year, my friends and I are raising money to build wells and provide clean water for villages in Tigray, Ethiopia.

Water

Because individuals (typically women) walk around 3.7 miles per day to fetch water for their families, members of our group are also committing to walk this amount each day as well.  It’s a somewhat different “take” on the traditional Lenten practices, but it is a small step for us to try to identify with our brothers and sisters, to push ourselves (and others) to be generous, and appreciate the abundance of what we possess.  This exciting project seeks to raise enough money for 10 wells which may potentially provide clean water for about 5,000 people!  As of today, we have raised enough for 6 wells (Every dollar donated will be matched by our small group)!

More information here:  http://mycharitywater.org/project1040

c-w

Now, I could tell you how fun it is to be a fundraiser (not that fun), or to try and walk the required daily mileage (it’s okay), or to see people give generously (EXTREMELY cool), but for myself, I know that the muscle I continue to need developing is that of being rich toward God by being generous towards others.  You would think that years of tithing to the church, donating towards worthy causes, and building wells would make giving money easier over time.  Truth is, it’s tough.  For Project 1040, Melissa and I committed to giving one-third of our savings towards the matching funds.  And let me tell you – it’s still really hard to do for me.  I’m still often plagued with nagging (but important) voices:

“Is this really the MOST effective use of this money?”

“Aren’t I supposed to be joyful?  Why, then, does this feel so hard?”

“What difference will this really make?”

“I could be doing a lot of other things with that money!”

I wish I had better answers to these questions and internal dialogue, but one thing that has helped is to imagine the look on the faces of the women, men, and children in far-away Tigray when the first trickle of water emerges from the new well.  I think about the kids who may have time to get an education; how many might avoid diseases and death.  I think about the celebration that will ensue.

celeb

Sometimes I wonder how much easier it would be to give if we were firsthand witnesses to those for whom will benefit from our generosity.  What if these people were just next door?  Wouldn’t we act quickly and without reservation?  Maybe what is atrophied for all of us is the capacity to imagine those in need as truly our neighbors.  We, in some ways, are still stuck asking the same Pharisaical question:  “And who is my neighbor?”

I hope you will prayerfully consider join us in our campaign to bless the people of Tigray, Ethiopia – our dear neighbors in Christ.

But even more, I hope you will allow the Spirit to infiltrate your imagination with visions of how a generous God can use you to pursue His purposes in the world.

What if Jesus were your financial advisor?

What if Jesus were your financial advisor?  What if the Son of God and His disciples were in charge of all your saving, spending, investing, and giving?  At first glance, the idea seems a bit silly, perhaps even disrespectful.  Jesus came to die for our sins, not dispense advice on mutual funds, right?

But actually, the New Testament turns out to contain an awful lot of financial insight.  In fact, Jesus and the apostles talked about it way more than other important ethical issues, such as sexuality.  Today I did little experiment to shed some light on what Jesus’ meta-message as our financial advisor would be.  First, building on several years of previous study, I decided to identify every passage in the New Testament that is directly relevant to the way we manage our money.  After a full morning’s work, I highlighted seventy-five passages (not including about 30 additional parallel texts).  Then I noted the basic theme of each text and put them all on an Excel spreadsheet.  Here’s a summary of the results:

As you can see, by far the most prominent theme in the New Testament is that our wealth is intended to be shared with the poor.  A close second was the idea, variously expressed, that money is somehow dangerous or at least distracting to our spiritual life.  Those themes make up more than TWO THIRDS of the New Testament’s teaching on money.  A final prominent theme is basically to not worry too much about money, because God will provide.

Surprisingly, less than eight percent of the relevant passages spoke about giving to support the pastor or the local church—which is the topic of the vast majority of “stewardship” sermons.  And there was almost nothing on budgeting, saving, or investing—topics that make up the vast majority of Christian financial stewardship books.

In summary, here’s what the two Great Commandments of Jesus’ financial advice look like to me:

  • You shall intentionally, generously, and regularly share your resources with the poor.
  • And a second is like it: you shall become free of consumerism and the need to find your identity in your possessions, instead trusting that God will provide what you actually need.

Now that is some weird financial advice.  You definitely won’t hear anything like that from Prudential or Charles Schwab.  For me, spending almost an entire day poring over these teachings really drove home just how radical and counter-cultural Jesus is, especially for those of us coming from a society that reveres material accumulation like no other in history.

But why not check out the Jesus’ advice for yourself?  I’d like to invite you to reflect personally on the wisdom in my spreadsheet.  If you just do about ten passages a day, it will only take a week.  And it just might be good news for your (financial) life.

Eating Healthy for Less


I’m experiencing a tension between spending less and eating more healthy food. Last year, we changed our diet to eat organic. This means we spend a bit more $ on food than we did before. Also, we use raw sugar, honey, or 100% maple syrup instead of white sugar and artificial sweeteners. As a result of eating healthier, the pain that I felt in my hands and wrists – which I thought was caused only by keyboard usage – went away! White processed sugar can be an inflammatory agent to your joints. Our kids’ piano teacher experienced the same thing with arthritic pain. Also, not surprisingly, we have less plaque on our teeth. The average American consumes between 3 and 5 pounds of added sugar a week, adding up to 200+ pounds of added sugar a year per person.

Also, we now use whole wheat flour instead of white processed flour. White processed flour is just glucose; it’s stripped of the nutritious wheat bran and germ, leaving only the carbohydrate. The rise in American diabetes is probably due to the use of white processed flour. Many products say “Made With Whole Grains” on packages, but use dark brown colors and deceptive names; they actually have ordinary refined wheat flour as their main ingredient, since they are not required by law to disclose the percentage of whole grains versus refined grains. In fact, some processed flour has a harmful plastic called bromine. So we try to eat NO white flour products at all: pasta, bread, buns, muffins, croissants, pizza dough, almost all cereals, crackers, and flour tortillas. Instead, if we buy things from the store, we buy oatmeal, flax seed cereal, nuts, whole wheat pasta, and Ezekiel bread from Trader Joe’s. At Christmas we also bought a small electric mill that grinds whole grains into whole wheat flour. It was $250 but it saves us a little bit because we now make our own bread, pizza dough, and pie crust, which are delicious. (My pizza is pictured above, blueberry pie here…)

In general, I’m convinced that eating healthy will save us money in the long run, both individually and as a society. Our industrial food system is a long way from God’s good garden with fresh fruit galore. Anyone recommend good recipes that combine the values of eating healthy but spending less? Awhile back, I came across this on Huffington Post, and it had some decent recipes.

Book Review — The Millionaire Next Door

If you haven’t read the book, I’m going to spoil it in one sentence: most millionaires are working-class small-business owners with frugal lifestyles.  The underlying principle — blindingly obvious in hindsight — is that to accumulate wealth, you need to spend less than you make.  The working-class millionaire doesn’t spend much to maintain his lifestyle or keep up with the neighbors.  On the other hand, the high-income professional may adopt a lavish lifestyle which prevents him from actually saving money.

The Millionaire Next Door reads like a modern-day book of Proverbs.  It contrasts financial fools and the wise, and none of the advice is new or surprising.  My main criticism of the book is that it defines new acronyms UAW / AAW / PAW to describe Under, Average, and Prodigious Accumulators of Wealth.  It’s a mental strain to read paragraphs filled with these acronyms.  I’m not linking the Wikipedia entry to the book because the use of acronyms makes a number of points unclear or simply wrong.  The authors suggest that an Average Accumulator of Wealth (AAW) should have a net worth equal to one-tenth their age multiplied by their current annual income.  That formula unfortunately doesn’t work well for young people who only recently entered the working world.

While a million dollars sounds like a lot of money to accumulate, it’s surprisingly in reach of many people.  In one Lazarus at the Gates session, we used an Excel spreadsheet to add up the total amount of money we could save by making simple lifestyle choices.  For example, you might decide to have a frugal yet meaningful wedding.  Or as another example, you might decide to put your two children in public school instead of private school for grades 1-12.  At an average annual tuition of $20k, this works out to 2 x 12 x 20k = $480k, close to half a million dollars in today’s money.  If you assume a 6% annual increase, the total cost would be $675k.

The book heavily criticizes subsidizing the lifestyles of children who have grown into adults — it coins the term “economic outpatient care” for this practice.  By teaching grown children that they can spend beyond their income, parents are passing on foolish values.  As a result, these grown children  are much less likely to save money and accumulate wealth.

Motivated by Grief


After World War II, the U.S. set out to control much of the world’s wealth.  One of the chief architects of this order said, “[The U.S. has] about 50% of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3% of its population.. In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment.  Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships that will permit us to maintain this position of disparity.”  (George Kennan, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1948. Report by the Policy Planning Staff, Washington, DC: General Printing Office, 1976, pp 524-525.)  Thus began a subtle, new kind of Empire.  In 1953, the CIA helped organize a coup in Iran to overthrow a democratically elected president to ensure that Anglo-Iranian Oil Company would have access to oil fields.  The oil company renamed itself British Petroleum.  Intense anti-Western sentiment built in Iran as the CIA installed a dictator, the Shah of Iran.

The CIA opposed democracy and installed dictators in Guatemala in 1954, Hungary in 1956, Laos in 1957, Haiti in 1959, Ecuador and Congo in 1961, the Dominican Republic in 1963, Indonesia in 1965, etc.  The list is depressingly long.  American business interests spread like a cancer over Latin America and Southeast Asia.

I give because I want to be generous, and because I want to express my grief in love.  “But that sounds like being motivated by guilt.”  No, I’m not motivated by guilt.  True guilt requires direct action to the people I directly hurt.  But in the political-economic context in which we live, neither the hurt nor the recompense is so direct.  So I give because the system is unfair and because I grieve it.  A good deal of the money we have was built on the suffering of other people.

Jesus called the rich ruler to give up all he had (Lk.18:18-30).  The ruler could not.  Then Jesus met Zaccheus (Lk.19:1-10), the filthy rich chief tax collector whose wealth flowed from the reality of Empire.  He sat at the top of a pyramid of lower ranking tax collectors; they got their wealth by collecting taxes for the oppressive Romans and skimming off of the Jewish people.  Zaccheus was able to give up his wealth.  Perhaps he was motivated by an appropriate guilt, to some degree, since he promised to give back four times the amount he had defrauded people; it was a direct action towards specific people he had wronged.  But perhaps he was also motivated by grief, since he also gave half his money to the poor, right off the bat.  Was he able to do so because he knew his money came from an unjust system?  Because he was already uncomfortable?  Was he already growing in his conviction that Empire was wrong?  Did a new identity with Jesus empower him to act on what was already gnawing on his conscience?

This kind of grief is one aspect of love.  “You were made sorrowful to the point of repentance; for you were made sorrowful according to the will of God, so that you might not suffer loss in anything through us.  For the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation, but the sorrow of the world produces death.  For behold what earnestness this very thing, this godly sorrow, has produced in you: what vindication of yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal, what avenging of wrong!”  (2 Corinthians 7:9-11)  “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”  (Matthew 5:4)  Shall we give because we, with Jesus, grieve and mourn?  Shall we give because we, with Jesus, long for the comfort of the poor?

Racheting

A rachet wrench is a tool that only turns in one direction.  When we say racheting consumption, that direction is assumed to be up.  As we grow older, we tend to advance in our jobs and make more money. For most people, making more money means spending more money.  We get used to more privacy, more space, more comfort and luxuries.  And it is *hard* to go the other way — our internal sense of entitlement rails against any drop in living conditions.  We might see our friends spending more and implicitly encouraging us to do the same.  Or we might move into a neighborhood where others are spending more, and it’s easy to compare ourselves with our neighbors and increase our spending to match.  Believe it or not, studies have shown that what makes us happy is not how much we have, but rather knowing we have more than our peers.

I see strong a strong parallel between racheting spending consumption and racheting eating consumption.  As we grow older, we also tend to eat better — no more cereal or Ramen noodles for dinner.  Coupled with a more sedentary lifestyle, the end result is a slowly racheting weight.  I’m not sure if there is a clear spiritual analogy for high spending consumption, but it makes me think of Ezekiel 16:49 :

Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.

It’s getting close to the end of the year, and many of us will think about New Years resolutions.  Here are a few suggestions for fighting the racheting effect:

  1. Knowledge is power. You can’t combat racheting without knowing how much you truly spend.  In the past, June and I tracked our spending in an Excel spreadsheet; we have 5 years worth of data now.  But that is a real discipline to sit down a few times a year and categorize / balance everything.  This year we’re trying mint.com to see if that makes it easier.  Do other people have systems they use and recommend?
  2. Set goals. Each person’s financial situation is different, so it’s hard to find a one-size-fits-all solution.  Maybe your goal is to get out of credit-card debt.  Or to increase your giving by a set percentage from last year.  Gary’s recommendation is to limit your spending to the living wage for your area.  Any billionaires reading this blog might consider joining Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in signing the Giving Pledge to give away the majority of your wealth in your lifetime.
  3. Do it together. Like exercise, financial discipline is easier to stick to with a partner or group.  Join us in starting a new group in your area, and tell us how you’re doing!

Alternative Black Friday

Black Friday at WalMart

On Monday, bargain hunters across the internet rabidly devoured the leaked Wal-Mart “Black Friday” flyer.  For non-U.S. readers, Black Friday is the day after Thanksgiving, and a big shopping holiday as retailers offer deep discounts to kick off the holiday shopping season.

I have mixed feelings about Black Friday.  On one hand, I do love good bargains, but on the other hand I am opposed to buying stuff needlessly.  I’m also opposed to wasteful gift-giving.  And I’m a bit leery of participating in a no-holds-barred pure celebration of consumerism.  It’s one thing to buy, but it’s another thing to celebrate buying.  Maybe it’s like the difference between reading comic books and dressing up to re-enact famous superhero battles.

This year for Black Friday, June and I are going to do something different.  We’ll shop, but for charities.  We have some money saved up in our CGF, and we’ve been meaning to invest in MicroPlace, so we’ll spend some time online and make donations and loans to nonprofits.  As for celebrating by handing out turkeys while dressed as pilgrims, well… maybe next year.